Rick Freedman, a criminal defense attorney in Miami, e-mailed to say that I made a mistake about Florida law on Wednesday night's (March 7, 2006) "360." He's right.
In discussing the upcoming penalty phase in the trial of John Couey, I said that Florida law required juries to be unanimous to impose a death sentence. In fact, Florida is the only state in the country that allows the death penalty to be imposed by a majority vote of the jury; it also allows a judge to override a jury's determination, though the judge is supposed to give great weight to the jury's determination.
This is a controversial and fast-changing area of the law. In the 2002 case of Ring v. Arizona, the Supreme Court said that trial judges alone, without the input of a jury, could not impose the death penalty. All the other states which have the death penalty (and the federal government) have complied with that ruling by holding that a valid death sentence can only come from a unanimous jury finding.
In a recent case, the Florida Supreme Court took the unusual step of asking the state legislature to change the law, writing, "The bottom line is that Florida is now the only state in the country that allows the death penalty to be imposed . . . by a mere majority vote." The Florida legislature hasn't acted -- yet. And the U.S. Supreme Court may yet decide that the juries have to be unanimous in death penalty decisions. Still, for the moment at least, Rick Freedman's point is valid: it will only take a majority vote of the jury, with the trial judge's concurrence, to sentence Couey to death.
Anyone interested in the death penalty should check out the Web site of the Death Penalty Information Center -- www.deathpenaltyinfo.org -- which contains an extraordinary amount of information on the subject.